From Pygmalion and Galatea to Frankenstein, Ex Machina and Person of Interest, the fictional landscape so often frames cisgender men as the creators of artificial life, leading to the same kinds of stories being told over and over. We want to bring some genuine revolution to the way that artificial intelligence stories are told, and how they intersect with gender identity, parenthood, sexuality, war, and the future of our species. How can we interrogate the gendered assumptions around the making of robots compared with the making of babies? Can computers learn to speak in a code beyond the (gender) binary?
If necessity is the mother of invention, what exciting AI might come to exist in the hands of a more diverse range of innovators?
Speculative fiction anthology Mother of Invention, edited by Tansy Rayner Roberts and Rivqa Rafael, is a showcase of diverse, challenging stories about women as creators of Artificial Intelligence and robots, forthcoming in September 2018 from award winning Australian publisher Twelfth Planet Press. Pre-order now from Amazon or from crowd funding site BackerKit. We’re excited to share Roberts and Rafael’s introduction to the anthology below!
This book is about genius. It’s about the creator, the developer, the inventor, the source of inspiration. But not just any genius—it’s about those who have consistently been left out of the Genius Creator narrative.
So much history has been lost, glossed over or ‘forgotten’ to perpetuate the cultural meme that The Scientist is a Man. Science fiction media and literature haven’t done much better (even when written by marginalised people), particularly in stories of robots, living computers and other artificial intelligences. From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and ‘No Woman Born’ by C.L. Moore to Person of Interest, Ex Machina and Her, Western storytelling overwhelmingly centres the White Cis Male Genius, with other genders usually relegated to distant, melodious AI voices, or smooth, metallic but potentially sexual robot bodies.
Science fiction has always been better at predicting technological changes than social ones. It’s also had a tendency to ignore actual real-life social progress that has been going on for decades. It’s not surprising, given history has consistently erased and minimised the scientific accomplishments of people who aren’t cis men, particularly when they’re also people of colour. The recent success of Hidden Figures—the book and film about the exciting contribution to NASA of women like Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan—was a good first step in rectifying these sins of omission.
But we’ve always been here, we of genders who are told we shouldn’t, or that we don’t even exist. We’ve been scientists, and engineers, and geniuses. We’ve helped put astronauts into orbit, and developed early computers and computing languages. Across the world, right now, we’re building robots, designing self-driving cars, and shaping our future.
Lydia E. Kavraki developed the Probabilistic Roadmap method, which prevents robots from crashing into each other. Fei-Fei Li at Stanford University is working on Smart Vision, teaching robots to understand information from visual images. Ruth Schultz, a cognitive scientist at the University of Queensland, led a team to develop linguodroids, robots capable of inventing their own words to communicate with each other. Marita Cheng, one of five women in an undergrad robotics class of more than 50 men at the University of Melbourne, created Robogals, a non-profit that hosts workshops worldwide, encouraging young girls to develop their interest in robotics, engineering and STEM.
Recognising non-binary and agender people’s contribution to the sciences is harder, because basic visibility is still a battle not yet won. Hopefully with events like the Non-Binary in Tech conference in London in 2017, set to reprise in 2018, their visibility and acceptance will increase.
While the premise of our anthology is the gender of the creator, a second theme wove its way in—that of the gender and sexuality of those creations. We were pleased to receive stories that addressed trans issues and asexuality, the latter being particularly laden with baggage when it comes to robot characters in fiction. Often the only representation of asexuality in science fiction is that of aliens and robots, leading to an overwhelmingly painful narrative by implication.
We named our book Mother of Invention, though the term ‘mother’ itself is narrow and problematic, carrying assumptions we wanted to interrogate, rather than project. Not all non-male creators are maternal. Not everyone sees the idea of ‘mother’ as something positive. Mothers aren’t always kind or good; mothers don’t always know best.
Despite the long history of the word with a specific gender, mothers are not always female.
Ultimately, we decided that the discomfort of the title adds to, rather than detracts from, the ideas of the book. Our book is full of mothers, as well as other creators of different kinds of artificial life. Some are sisters, friends, lovers, daughters. Some are simply scientists.
Most of them are geniuses.
Some of our stories rail against the very idea of being maternal, as well as the constraints of gender. Others embrace those roles. Some themes are so complex that an anthology filled with diverse voices is the best way to explore the possibilities that fiction has to offer. This is one of those themes.
Our geniuses and creators are not always positive forces. They have varied reasons and motivations; they’re not always the point- of-view character because the creation deserves a voice as often as the creator does. We’re proud to have such a diverse collection of geniuses in these stories that represent different parts of the ethical spectrum.
The male scientist has for so long been allowed to be the most complicated, layered, ethically questionable character in an artificial intelligence story. It’s long past time we embraced the idea of letting other geniuses be equally difficult.
We were delighted by the overwhelming response from our crowdfunding campaign, which told us that this book was both needed and desired. We’ve chosen stories from all over the world, from a mixture of new, emerging and established writers. We’re completely in love with Mother of Invention’s tangled web of inspired geniuses, robot bodies and disembodied voices.
This is a book of robots and feelings.
Excerpted from The Mother of Invention, copyright © 2018 by Tansy Rayner Roberts & Rivqa Rafael